Sunday, November 16, 2008
It's been a difficult few weeks for me in some ways, most of it too personal to blog about. Lots of happy things going on, and those you know about. Some heartbreaking things, too.
In the middle of it all, I've been reading The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama. It was short, but not fast. Peaceful and challenging at the same time. The characters familiar, the setting utterly foreign to me.
Maybe it felt so right for me because it was about a refuge, a recuperation, a peaceful, slow-moving time. But it also turned out to be a demanding period of personal growth for the protagonist, Stephen, a young man from Hong Kong who goes to recover from tuberculosis at his family's seaside home in Japan in 1937-8.
It was about being caught between worlds and passions; Stephen is faraway and helpless as the Japanese army moves through Canton toward his home, unable to reconcile the kindness and goodness of the people he is meeting in Japan with the horrors of war between the two countries. He falls in love with a young woman and witnesses a sea change in his parents' marriage while learning about a doomed and beautiful true love story from a prior generation. He says he is there to paint but discovers a talent for writing and a passion for story.
It was about brothers and sisters, being close and not close, during hard times and easy times. What happens to us when we are struck by what we never expected?
The prose in this book is as spare, clean and lovely as the shoji-screened rooms described in its pages. Here's a sample that I found moving, as Stephen visits a shrine with Matsu, the other main character, who is the caretaker of Stephen's parents' house.
I quickly clapped three times and pulled on the rope. I stared hard at the enclosed shrine and the bowl of rice. The burning incense stung my eyes. I bowed low and tried to concentrate on some kind of prayer. My mind was confused. Who or what should I pray for? There were too many thoughts cluttering my head to choose only one. I wanted to pray for my parents' marriage, or Sachi and Matsu's happiness, or for the war to end in China. I could feel Matsu standing behind me, waiting. So I simply closed my eyes tight and prayed for all of us.